Bangladesh: The Politics of Formlessness
It was quiet on Rajshahi University campus: its wide open fields were occupied by only scattered lovers and some local dogs on patrol, their barking occasionally breaking the pervasive silence. A district level hartal (strike) had been in force for the past twenty days. No classes were running. Nor were there any cars on the roads – only a regular flow of jingling cycle rickshaws and the occasional hum of an electric auto. The children of the resident academics had no classes either – their schools were also closed down. Occasionally, a tutor would drop in to make sure they were keeping up with their homework, but these were, for the most part, listless days. It was an eerie contrast to the usual bustle of a South Asian town.
My friend Bokhtiar had been working from his office, where he had a few overdue reports to complete. I went with him and tried to work on my writing, but found the silence unsettling, so didn’t get much done. By late afternoon we decided to meet up with Bokhtiar’s wife, Elora, and seven-year-old son, Eraab, at a tea stall just outside the campus gates that was famous for its chilli-infused ‘special tea.’ As we crossed the field to the main gate, I commented to Bokhtiar on my strange fortune: coming to Bangladesh during a time of political turbulence had allowed me to experience a kind of peace that this part of the world usually does not offer. Bokhtiar flashed a laconic smile and added ‘War is Peace.’
As we approached the gate we saw Elora and Eraab coming from the opposite direction. ‘Uncle!’ Eraab cried out, excitedly, ‘There is a war going on!’
I’ll never forget that innocent, toothless grin that spoke so directly to the normalisation of violence. He had just witnessed an angry crowd of nationalist protesters just outside the campus grounds being fired upon with rubber bullets by police. We all laughed along with him and resigned ourselves to the fact that now was not a good time to get our ‘special tea.’ We later learned that several of the protesters were badly injured in the confrontation that day. Further, in an escalation of the unrest, one local leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami Party was killed in the early hours of the following morning in an ‘encounter’ with police. It all occurred within a 1km radius of the quiet campus compound on which we were staying.
Geographically speaking, Bangladesh is a small country, profoundly shaped by physical forces outside of its immediate domain. In from the North flow two major rivers, the Ganges and Brahmaputra, known locally as Padma and Jamuna, respectively. Each powerful river systems in their own right, they converge in Bangladesh to form a vast delta. They deposit nutrient-rich soil, which has enabled the region to support the huge human population for which it is known. Yet, these rivers also carry soil away, making the landscape an ever-amorphous one. Islands of silt deposits known as chors form within the delta. Their shape always shifting, they can come into being and then disappear within the space of a few years, in which time people may have occupied them and then shifted as the river permitted.
The flows from the river, which have such a dramatic impact on the landscape and ecology of the nation, come under the influence of powerful political and economic forces outside of Bangladesh’s control. Major dams are being constructed by India in the border regions, at times restricting the flow of rivers and at times flooding them – occasionally to the point of threatening cities with submergence. Bangladesh also has to contend with violent forces of nature: cyclones are relatively frequent and devastating. And, of course, the sea level is rising due to climate change – already causing significant human displacements, but predicted to cause millions more in the decades to come.
In the context of these powerful forces, people are remarkably resilient. I like to think that this has something to do with the cultural characteristics of the population at large. This is a country in which Islamic, secular and even Hindu traditions overlap in a culture that is highly syncretic. I found a kind of beauty in the ambiguity of this syncretism. In my mind I found myself comparing Bangladesh to India, and couldn’t help but find the aesthetics of Bangladesh to be far superior. In India, particularly during these times of Modi, a kind of over-arching nationalism, an expansive state apparatus and an increasingly globalised economy tends to homogenise the aesthetics of the national space. In India, it’s everywhere the same: one-size-fits-all concrete houses testify to the dominance of huge corporations like Ambuja cement: the strong man holding up the nation. And everywhere in India, symbols of the nation and religious nationalism: tacky, meaningless statues – attempts to impose a homogenous version of the idea of India from above.
Bangladesh, to a far greater degree, takes its shape from below. Its beauty is in its formlessness – in its lack of a clear mode of identification. It’s a quality that one finds in the landscape itself, being forever reshaped by the flows of the great rivers that converge there. And with the converging political, economic and environmental forces that land on the Bangladeshi people, it’s unsurprising that its culture is also a somewhat amorphous and adaptive one. Its national identity is as formless as the chors of the river delta – the defining feature of its geography.
I arrived in Bangladesh at a time of political turmoil. A nation of 180 million people had been brought to a halt by a national hartal (strike), which was called by the country’s opposition party on January 5th. The hartal (which is still ongoing) had focused mainly on shutting down the major roads. This, naturally, severely restricted access to basic goods and services, particularly in the more remote regions, having a devastating impact on daily life. Yet, if you wanted to find news of this in the international media, you really had to search. Bangladesh has never been a news story – always on the global periphery, not awarded the place in the international imaginary of its powerful neighbours, India and China. The strike hadn’t yet affected the regular flow of cheap t-shirts to the rest of the world, so it seemed not to have registered.
The hartal represented a clash between rival political parties: a somewhat-secular government at loggerheads with somewhat pro-Islamic nationalist opposition. A ‘day of democracy’ had been called by the government to celebrate their victory in the elections last year. A national shut-down (hartal) was then called by the opposition, in protest against the same victory (claims it was rigged, etc.). The capital city of Dhaka was sealed off from the rest of the country, with neither freight nor buses allowed in or out. Several buses had been randomly petrol-bombed, killing dozens of passengers, in order to create panic and further encourage people not to travel. Thousands of members of the opposition were arrested in a bid to keep the situation under control. Yet still, the hartal was ongoing at the time when I arrived, almost one month after it was first called.
Despite their horrific human consequences, the more I learned about the political events in Bangladesh, the more they appeared to be a kind of theatre. The dramatic public gestures from both sides of politics were like scenes in an ongoing performance being enacted since at least the early 1990s, when Bangladesh emerged from military rule to reinstate electoral democracy. After each election, the losing party would accuse the other side of electoral fraud. The general public has, of course, lost all credulity in the capacity of either side to engage in fair electoral politics; yet, the theatre continues, apparently without a great deal of concern for the real attitudes and sentiments of the people – except, perhaps, that they should feel afraid. The connections between the political stage and the grassroots of Bangladesh appeared to be minimal. For the average Bangladeshi, the politically-induced violence was just another disturbance, interrupting their daily routine – alongside blackouts, cyclones, crime and corruption.
There was, of course, some ideological basis for what was happening. Bangladesh faces a fundamental ambiguity in its national identity. It was, in a sense, a twice-born nation – born first in the partition of the Indian subcontinent of 1947, when it was part of the Republic of Pakistan, a nation for India’s Muslims. Then, a second birth in 1971, when the Bengalis in East Pakistan demanded Independence on the basis of culture and language. It was from this latter struggle that Bangladesh emerged as an independent country. The first birth on the basis of religion, the second on the basis of culture. To a certain extent, the second ‘cultural’ birth represented a disavowal of the increasing Islamism of the Pakistani state, and a reassertion of Bengal’s secular history. Bongabondhu, ‘the father of the nation,’ had been committed to the principles of secularism – and for this very reason, there was widespread, violent resistance from Bengali Islamists to breaking away from Pakistan. This opposition between religion and secularism has become the defining feature of Bangladesh’s major political parties.
As the roads were still unsafe, we travelled from Rajshahi to Dhaka by train. Bokhtiar had work to take up at Dhaka University and I was scheduled to give a guest lecture there on the seemingly neutral topic of ‘Youth and Globalisation in Asian Contexts.’ The lecture was ultimately cancelled, for concern it might attract unwanted attention in these delicate times. Still, I spent most of my time on campus. Dhaka University has always been the hub of the city’s cultural and political life, being the origin of most of the country’s most significant political movements (I heard it said: ‘Elsewhere nations make universities; only in Bangladesh do universities make nations’).
On my second-last day in Dhaka I got a small taste of the tensions that would only become worse after my departure. We arrived that day to a tense atmosphere at university campus. The previous night we had been disturbed by the sound of Molotov cocktails exploding on campus grounds. The student factions of the political parties were starting to have overt confrontations, which were playing out, in particular on the university grounds. That morning, the student wing of the Awami League had occupied the space outside the Madhur Canteen, a popular hangout for students. They sat there in eerie silence as we walked past, perched on the walls watching the passers-by with half-smiles.
There was a foreboding sense of immanent confrontation. It seemed these young men were not there for any other purpose than to announce their presence to the opposing team. When we entered the canteen, we found more Awami League supporters, occupying every chair, lined up in rows in the middle of the room. In one corner, a group of three or four Marxists were chatting, holding their own lonely fort. The room was otherwise eerily quiet.
I felt that this was an example of the explosive potential of ‘timepass,’ the public, conspicuously idle means of ‘hanging out’ characteristic of many young unemployed men in South Asia (described eloquently by Craig Jeffrey in his book of the same title). For these idle young men, joining politics was probably less a matter of ideology than of career advancement. Joining a political party and gaining political connections is one of the surest ways of improving employment prospects in a country like Bangladesh, where the number of educated youth is enormous and the available jobs (particularly skilled, middle class jobs) are few. Lining up and occupying space in this manner was a clear display of group solidarity, which just might pay off for these young men in years to come. Besides, given the general lack of available careers and the sliding standards of education, what better did they have to do with their time?
Though quiet, this display announced the immanent potential of violence. Frustrated young men, ready for a fight in order to defend their chosen team. It seemed only a matter of time before this would escalate.
Just and Unjust Rage
The escalation had come by sunset. We were meeting friends at the boi mela, an annual book fair held at the Bangla Academy, part of a month long celebration of the Bengali language. We drove in on an auto-rickshaw, enveloped in a metal cage to keep out thieves (like all other autos in the capital). Through the bars of our cage, we saw a swelling crowd of Awami League supporters, chanting their slogans: Amar Mati, Amar Maa: Joi Bangla! [‘Our land is our mother: Long live Bangladesh!’].
We were set down at the TSC Roundabout where the demonstration seemed to be gathering pace. In the centre of the roundabout stood an impressive white sculpture, showing student protestors forming a human chain. Commemorating a student activist, Razu, who was killed in a protest against increasing violence on campus, it was intended as a monument to non-violence. (Post-script: In a terrible irony, it was also in this very location that the blogger-activist Avijit Roy would be hacked to death, presumably by ideological opponents, on February 26th this year).
As the volume of the protestors began to rise, we were joined by some friends. Paying no attention to the protestors, our friend Shilpi asked me:
‘Kemon achho?’ [How are you?]
AMAR MATI AMAR MA!
‘Thiik achhen’ [I’m ok], I replied, awkwardly.
Shilpi laughed loudly, ‘Thiik acchen! Very good!’
AMAR MATI, AMAR MA!
‘I think my pronunciation is not so good!’
‘Doesn’t matter – you are improving. It is your duty to learn Bangla!’
A loud crack. A short man with a big plank of wood was forcefully whacking the backs of the cycle rickshaws that were amassed in the chowk. They began to disperse in a slow churning of legs and wheels.
‘What the fuck?!’ I asked, turning to my friends to understand what this fellow was doing.
‘He’s just asking them to clear’ Shilpi said, calmly.
As he came closer, I felt the air break with every crack of his plank, and with it a rush of cortisol. My friends were unmoved and carried on chatting. Their calm disposition was somewhat reassuring (this apparent display of aggression was nothing to worry about) but also made the entire thing seem completely unreal. Was this how one was supposed to react?
By now the man was barking at the rickshaw drivers, as the Awami League rally began to move its way through, its chorus growing louder, fists fiercely punching at the air.
The rage of the protesters was palpable, but what did it mean? As the governing party, the Awami League had every right to feel angry about the ongoing hartal – in fact, most people I encountered were angry about it. At this stage, not only had everyday life been profoundly interrupted, but buses were being petrol bombed at the rate of once per day, with over fifty casualties and hundreds of people severely burned. And this was only what made the news. What didn’t make the news was the far more frequent incident of bus windows being smashed with bricks and rocks. Buses with smashed windscreens were a regular sight around Dhaka. At least amongst the middle class people with whom I interacted, there was a deep sense of frustration and anxiety at the situation, and a belief that it was entirely senseless.
Yet, when the Awami League raged and chanted nationalist slogans in apparent solidarity with the people affected by the hartal, they lacked any plausibility. Everyone knew that the Awami League would use the very same tactics when they were in opposition. The claims of ‘Our land is our mother – long live Bangladesh!’ seemed to speak more to a sense of entitlement and the Awami League’s own right to rule than to a genuine feeling of solidarity with the embattled millions. Strategically, the Awami League could only hope that the suffering inflicted by the BNP’s hartal would undermine their support in the general population (who could vote for a party whose national strike was killing people – often in the most horrific ways?). From the BNP’s perspective, their hope was that the horrors of the hartal would be blamed on the ruling Awami League – as they had been the ones who had provoked the strike.
Yet, deplorable as the actions of individuals and parties may be, the situation in Bangladesh can’t be reduced to a simple blame game. This is a situation in which democracy itself has lost all plausibility. Bangladesh has never had the opportunity for democratic norms to be institutionalised. Just a few short years after its Independence, Bongabondhu (Bangladesh’s president and ‘father of the nation’) was murdered, along with most of his family members, in a coup that instated military rule for more than fifteen years. After democracy was reinstated in 1991, its politics have followed the same patterns that have continued until this day – accusations of vote rigging, national strikes and so on.
A Formless Nation
It was striking to me during my time in Bangladesh that, despite the country’s rich and beautiful culture, its proud tradition of exceptional poets and artists and its iconic farming and fishing communities, most of the prominent nationalist imagery revolves around militarism. Statues of men and women carrying guns, fighting for their liberation: the blood of the martyrs symbolically spattered on the walls in red paint. The idea of the nation was forged powerfully in blood in 1971, when the Pakistan army murdered somewhere between 300,000 and 3 million of its citizens.
Yet, this is also a country in which this powerful idea of nation never converged with the state. Since the murder of Bongabondhu in 1975, the state ceased to be an institution carrying any legitimacy. It was just another terrorist organisation, or a natural calamity – an interruption, that people had to find a way of living with. I began to see why so many of my friends in Bangladesh were attracted to anarchism. Bangladesh was innately anarchic. It was the people trying to get on with their lives and ‘develop’ in spite of the state, not through it.
Acknowledgement. I am indebted to my friends Bokhtiar Ahmed and Raasheed Mahmood for their comments on a previous version of this post. Further, their observations were a major source of inspiration for the analysis I’ve presented here (though I take full responsibility for any shortcomings).
Bokhtiar gives a far more detailed and sophisticated account of relations between Bangladeshi society and the State in his PhD thesis.